Join us for the next Festival: January 15-26, 2025

by Kathleen Thometz, Western Springs Journal

There has been a lot of breast-beating and angst about how bad 2016 was and many are happy to have it behind them. The beauty of this attitude is that everyone is up for something new in 2017, so I would suggest going to a puppet show.

What comes to mind when you hear the words Puppet Theater? Do you think of kids and Sesame Street? Maybe you’ve seen the movies Magic or Child’s Play and find puppets creepy. Team America: World Police was amazing and funny and may have introduced you to puppet sex. In 2015, I was fortunate enough to see the puppet movie, Anomalisa, after reading a review by Ian Freer. This quote is what hooked me: Anomalisa has more heart, soul and pathos than 99.9 percent of live-action movies. The best hotel-set love story since Lost In Translation.”

Many people view puppets with some trepidation, which make them not open to seeking out contemporary puppet theater. Case in point: I was telling some dear friends at a party last week about a recent puppet show I’d seen and they looked at me like I’d grown a puppet head! This is a shame, especially for those living in the Chicagoland because not only are we home to some great puppet theater companies as described in my 2014 piece, Puppet Shows Art Not Just For Kids, we will be host to the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, which takes place from January 19-29, 2017.

The only way I can describe how amazing contemporary Puppet Theater is this: I never ate salads as a young woman until someone convinced me to try a Caesar Salad at a fancy restaurant in Atlantic City, New Jersey in the 80s. It was so delicious that it was literally life changing. A whole new world of food opened up to me during that dinner.

I’m not sure that I ever gave puppets much thought after putting on a performance in my grade school talent show back in the 70s. My brother and I had received marionettes for Christmas. We wrote a puppet show, my dad built a theater on wheels and my older brother drew the backdrops. I don’t remember if it was well received but we never performed again.

Fast-forward forty years and I’m a student at the SAIC. I found myself taking Performance and Puppetry with Blair Thomas. I was attracted to puppets because I love miniatures and unlike drawing or painting, the sky is the limit on materials you can use in building puppets.

In Blair’s class we learned how to make shadow and hand puppets and practiced performing small skits. Our final project was to create a puppet show and perform it in front of an audience, kind of like a puppet slam. My fourteen-puppet, fifteen-minute show was called The Talk. As a mother of teens and preteens I was preoccupied with the lack of guidance on how to give the sex talk to my kids. I polled the twenty somethings in my puppet class and learned that none of them had ever been given the talk by their parents. That was all of the encouragement I needed!

My plan was to give a lighthearted, yet thorough, sex talk during my show. One of the beautiful things about puppetry is that puppets can get away with saying and doing things that a person cannot and once a puppet looks you in the eye, you’re hooked.

So I built puppets of a dating couple, their parents, and the STD Flower. Mr. Hand recited the five criteria a couple needs to meet before entering into a sexual relationship. I made a chorus consisting of the male and female genitalia, a condom and a dental dam.

I practiced in front of a mirror for weeks, memorizing my lines using fourteen different voices. I worked so hard that naturally I expected my family to come see the fruits of my labor. My classmates were somewhat surprised that I planned to bring my children, elementary through high school to the show. Not only was my show a bit racy but so were some of the others.

“They’ve seen you rehearsing your show, right?”
“Well, No. I thought this would be the perfect venue for them to get the talk.”
“Oh, boy.”

Oh boy is right! Fourteen minutes of my puppet show was enough to scar them for life. My daughter attends University of Connecticut, one of only two schools in the United States with a puppetry major.

“Would you consider taking one puppetry class?”
“Mom, I hate puppets. I will never take a class nor go to a puppet show again.”

My children don’t seem to remember the beautiful marionette show we took them to see while on vacation in New York, or The Nutcracker performed by the Puppet Co. in Glen Echo, Maryland. They claim to have never seen Sesame Street because we didn’t have a TV during their preschool years.

The bottom line is that seeing your mom perform a show with puppets talking about having sex with each other, along with singing penises and condoms may have been a bit too much. Sadly, I may have ruined them for puppetry forever but thankfully, my husband, who has thicker skin and a shorter memory, is taking me to the puppet festival this month!